The War Artists

An Overview of William Orpen

As an artist I was intrigued about life as a war artist and how the dynamics of the relationship between ‘creative’ and solider would work during the conflict. How would an artist integrate within a battle zone, how would he be treated by other soldiers and how would he manage practically and creativity amongst the death and carnage?

Sir William Orpen was recruited as an Official World War Artist at the end of 1916. His brief from Britain's War Propaganda Bureau (Wellington House) was to paint portraits of senior military figures. It was felt that Orpen would be treated more seriously if he held a higher military rank so he was promoted to Major.

His Journey

Orpen travelled by sea to Boulogne in April 1917, a year after the start of the Battle of the Somme. He was summoned by General Charteris and promptly told:

“You go anywhere you like, do anything you like, but don't ask me to get any Generals to sit to you; they're fed up with artists.”

Orpen decided to go to Amiens which became his base for many months. During his first few days he lunched with John Sargent and remarked about how large and dirty the city was. It was from here that he got his first sight of the Somme battlefields.

“Nothing but mud, water, crosses and broken tanks; miles and miles of it, horrible and terrible, but with a noble dignity of its own, and, running through it, the great artery, the Albert-Bapaume Road, with its endless stream of men, guns, food lorries, mules and cars, all pressing along with apparently unceasing energy towards the front.”

The three phases of the Battle of the Somme were over by April 1917. The Germans had been pushed back only three weeks before Orpen arrived. What he saw was untouched and unnerving. Bodies strewn everywhere, twisted and bloated in the base of trenches, desolation and desperation. He smelt decay. It was April and the landscape was cold, damp and tired.

An officer asked him to "Paint the Somme?". His reply. “Easy, just a flat horizon-line and mud-holes and water, with the stumps of a few battered trees.” He would drive out each day from Amiens and sketch the battlefields from early morning until the light faded and it got dark.

He spent the next few months travelling around the Ypres Salient and returned to Albert in August.

“I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell-holes and mud—the most gloomy, dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it.”

The landscape had been transformed and resembled an "enchanted land". He noted that where once the damp grey mud had been, it was now baked pure white under the hot summer sun. The fields were covered in flowers that stretched for miles and miles. The sky was blue and the air was thick with butterflies and other insects. He could hear the sky larks sing their distinctive song. He described a valley between Amiens and Albery as beautiful. “A patchwork of greens, browns, greys and yellows.". The writer John Masefield told Orpen one day that it looked like a post-impressionist table-cloth.

One September morning Orpen wrote about wandering around ‘the old battlefield’ when he came across a great wilderness of white chalk.

“..not a tuft of grass, not a flower, nothing but blazing chalk; apparently a hill of chalk dotted thickly all over with bits of shrapnel. This enormous hole, 320 yards round at the top, with sides so steep one could not climb down them, was the vast, terrific work of man.

He walked up and found himself on the lip of a crater. He said he felt in another world. He had found what today is called The Lochnagar Crater, just outside the village of La Boisselle.